Monster Centipede on Mt. Mikami

Fujiwara Hidesato and the giant centipede on Mt. Mikami. Illustration by art students at Seian University of Art and Design in Otsu. (Signboard near Seta Karahashi Bridge, donated by Otsu Higashi Rotary Club in 2005.)

Tawara-no-Tota Hidesato Slaying the Giant Centipede
俵藤太秀郷ムカデ退治(俵藤太物語)

Adapted in English by Philbert Ono based on an old folktale.

Once upon a time during Japan’s Heian Period in the 10th century, there was a young warrior prince named Fujiwara Hidesato (藤原 秀郷), also known as Tawara-no-Toda (俵藤太). One day, when he was going to cross the Seta Karahashi Bridge in Otsu (Shiga Prefecture), he saw a big commotion at the end of the bridge.

“How awful!! What should we do??” “Look at how big it is!!” “I’m too frightened to cross the bridge!” People were fraught with fear and anxiety.

When Hidesato looked at the bridge, he saw a giant dragon-serpent (orochi) sleeping on the middle of the bridge.

Orochi dragon-serpents.

“Oh, so that’s it. Well, it doesn’t scare me at all,” thought Hidesato. He started walking across the bridge. Everyone gasped as they watched him. “Who is that?? He is either very brave or absolutely CRAZY!!” said one man.

Hidesato was fearless as he approached the giant orochi. He then shocked everyone by climbing and stomping over the giant serpent and walking to the other end of the bridge. The giant serpent did nothing and everyone was amazed. “He’s the bravest man in Omi!!” shouted one man. The dragon-serpent slithered back into the lake.

That evening, Hidesato stayed at a lakeside inn. When he was about to sleep, a beautiful, radiant maiden appeared before him.

In a heavenly voice, she spoke, “I am the daughter of the Dragon King, the god of water and all creatures in Lake Biwa. I have come to request a favor. A monster centipede (omukade) on Mt. Mikami has been killing and eating our native lake fish like nigorobuna and gengorobuna carp that are the Dragon King’s sons and daughters. We were looking for a strong and brave warrior who can get rid of the monster centipede. So I disguised myself as a giant serpent on Seta Karahashi Bridge and waited for someone as brave as you. Without fear, you walked over me and crossed the bridge. I was very impressed by your bravery. Can you please help us get rid of the monster centipede? It can wrap itself around Mt. Mikami seven and a half times. It’s huge.”

Hidesato was very taken by the angelic princess. “Yes, I would be happy to do it. I love great challenges. Life would be boring without any challenges.”

He then headed toward Mt. Mikami while carrying a bow and large arrows. He could hardly wait for the monster centipede to show itself.

Illustration by art students at Seian University of Art and Design in Otsu, donated by the Otsu Higashi Rotary Club.

As he waited, the late-night dark sky was soon filled with a terrible thunderstorm. The lake swelled with rough waves, and the earth started to shake and rumble. On Mt. Mikami, a thousand little fires danced in the darkness led by two big fireballs. Hidesato didn’t have a good feeling about this. Very soon, a huge, black body with many thick legs on both sides appeared and coiled around the mountain. It was the monster centipede! Along with the thunder, it made a dreadful sound as it moved along slowly.

Hidesato got his thick arrow and shot it right between the two fireballs which were the centipede’s eyes, but it only bounced off the centipede. He shot another arrow, and again, nothing happened. “Whoops!! That didn’t work at all!”

For the first time in his life, he started to feel a little panicky. He had only one arrow left. He prayed to Hachiman, the guardian deity of the samurai and the god of archery. He then recalled that human saliva can penetrate and poison a centipede. He spit on his fingers and rubbed the saliva on the arrowhead.

Hidesato loads an arrow for the giant mukade.

He held the third arrow firmly and pulled the bow string as much as he could behind his ear. “OK you giant mukade, take that!!” He let out a yell, “YAHH!!” as he let go of the string and shot the arrow at the centipede’s forehead.

The arrow whizzed through the dark rain and perfectly pierced the giant mukade. Hidesato pumped his fist into the air and exclaimed, “Alright I got him!!” His prayers were answered.

Then suddenly, the thunderstorm cleared, the little fires stopped, the lake calmed, and the rumbling earth quieted. The monster mukade was killed. Hidesato gave a short prayer for the soul of the omukade so that it could rest in peace.

A few days later, the Dragon King’s daughter visited Hidesato. “Thank you very much for getting rid of the giant centipede! We are all so happy and relieved in Lake Biwa! Our unique, native fish found nowhere else in the world can now swim without fear. My father, the Dragon King, wants to invite you to our palace in Lake Biwa and thank you personally.” Hidesato could not refuse.

They rode on the backs of giant Lake Biwa catfish and traveled deep down into the lake below Seta Karahashi Bridge where even sunlight could not penetrate. The water was cold and dark. Then suddenly colorful lights emerged from the lake bottom. It was the palace of the Dragon King who has been living here for over 2,000 years protecting Lake Biwa and all its creatures. All local fishermen worshipped him along with Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows.

The Dragon King was overjoyed that Hidesato was able to put down the monster mukade. In appreciation, the Dragon King held a grand banquet for Hidesato with delicious delicacies from Lake Biwa such as funazushi (fermented nigorobuna carp), Biwa salmon (Biwa masu), and Seta shijimi clam soup. He also showered Hidesato with many special gifts including a straw barrel of rice that never ran out of Omi rice, a roll of silk fabric that never ran out of silk, a hot pot that always cooked food perfectly, a sword, and a temple bell that was made while the Buddha was alive.

The Dragon King’s servants carried all these gifts to Hidesato’s home. Since he had no use for the bell, Hidesato donated the bell to Miidera Temple in Otsu which became the temple’s first bell. With the other gifts, Hidesato led a happy and prosperous life. THE END

  • Although there is no monster centipede eating Lake Biwa’s fish, there are other little monsters (invasive species) eating or killing the fish and pollution making the lake dirty.
  • The bronze bell given to Miidera Temple was later famously stolen about 200 years later by the warrior monk Benkei (12th c.) who dragged it up to rival temple Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei. The bell was returned and is now quietly retired and publicly displayed at Miidera Temple in Otsu (photo below).
  • The sword the Dragon King gave Hidesato is kept at Ise Jingu Grand Shrines in Mie Prefecture and nicknamed “Mukade-cutting sword” (蜈蚣切).
  • The whereabouts of Hidesato’s other gifts are unknown, but whoever possesses them is enjoying great riches.
  • As with most Japanese legends/folktales, there are different versions of this story, but the above covers the basic gist.
  • Perhaps the most well-known, but archaic, English translation of this folktale is My Lord Bag of Rice by Yei Theodora Ozaki in 1908.
Seta Karahashi Bridge with Mt. Mikami in the distance. Woodblock print by Hiroshige in 19th c.
Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge (瀬田の唐橋) today over Seta River in southern Otsu.
Mt. Mikami (三上山) in Yasu is nicknamed “Omi-Fuji” (Mt. Fuji of Shiga) since it has a conical shape like Mt. Fuji. Climb it in 80 min.
Miidera Temple bell donated by Hidesato. The bell has scratch marks made when Benkei stole the bell.
Near the east end of Seta Karahashi Bridge is Ryuo-gu Hidesato-sha Shrine (龍王宮秀郷社) dedicated to Hidesato and the Dragon King princess.
Benkei stealing Miidera’s temple bell donated by Hidesato.

More photos of Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge

More photos of Mt. Mikami

Also read “The Birth of Chikubushima”

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The Birth of Chikubushima

Although Shiga has many local legends and folktales, only a few are nationally famous. And fewer still are in English. So I’ve started writing English versions of some of Shiga Prefecture’s legends and folktales.

One problem is that these stories usually have different sources, versions, interpretations, and adaptations in Japanese. Instead of trying to decide which is the original or better version and translating it, I’ve created my own adaptation in English based on the basic storyline.

My first Shiga folktale in English I’m putting online perhaps matches the current rainy season. Enjoy!

The Birth of Chikubushima
竹生島ができたお話

by Philbert Ono, based on an old folktale.

chikubushimalegend

Once upon a time in northern Omi, the great Mount Ibuki-yama stood high and proud. He was the god Tatamihiko (多々美比古命).

Every day, Ibuki-yama would boast, “Ha! Look at me, I am the highest mountain in all of Omi! Whichever way I look, all the other mountains are below me!”

While the other mountains were often covered with clouds and rain and beaten by the wind, Ibuki-yama stood high and clear above the clouds.

But one summer, the clouds were so thick and high that they also covered Ibuki-yama. All the mountains were hidden by dark clouds and rain.

With nothing to do, Ibuki-yama decided to sleep. He went into a deep slumber for days. “Zzzzz…”

After many long days of clouds and rain, the big, blue sky appeared once again. Ibuki-yama awoke and exclaimed, “Wonderful! It’s sunny today!”

He started to look in all directions with a big smile on his face, seeing all the mountains lower than him. In the south, there was Ryozen, a big but lower mountain. Even when he looked west, far across the lake at the Hira mountains, none were higher.

But when he looked north, “Whoa, what is that??!!” It was an unbelievable sight.

He rubbed his eyes to make sure he was seeing correctly. But he still couldn’t believe it. There was a mountain higher than Ibuki-yama!!

He angrily called out, “Hey you there! Aren’t you Azai-dake?!!”

“Yes uncle, it’s me, Azai-dake.” Mount Azai-dake was the goddess Azai-hime (浅井比売命). Azai-dake was actually related to Ibuki-yama because they belonged to the same mountain range.

“How dare you grow taller than me while I was asleep! You must return to your original height at once!”

“What?? Are you kidding me? I can become taller if I want to!!” Azai-dake was defiant like a rebellious teenager.

No matter how Ibuki-yama looked at Azai-dake, she still looked taller than him. He kept bellowing, “Lower yourself!” or “Become shorter!” But Azai-dake only ignored him and didn’t even bother to answer.

Finally, Ibuki-yama could not stand it anymore. He drew out a large sword and yelled, “Ei OHHH!!!”

Azai-dake shrieked, “Hii-EEE!!!” Ibuki-yama swung the sword in one quick stroke and cleanly cut off Azai-dake’s head.

Her head tumbled down the west side of the mountain. All the neighboring mountains were shocked to see the rolling head, especially nearby Odani-yama and Yamamoto-yama when the head passed by. “Oh my GOD, what happened to you??!!” The Azai-dake peak kept rolling, GORO-GORO-GORO!!!

Meanwhile in Lake Biwa, all the fish were also frightened by the big rumbling sound becoming louder and louder. The King of Lake Biwa, Biwako O-namazu (ビワコオオナマズ), ordered, “Hurry everyone! Swim away toward Takashima as quickly as you can!” Takashima was on the opposite shore of the lake.

Some moments later, BA-SHAAAAN!!! ZA-BUUUN!!! Azai-dake’s head splashed into Lake Biwa. It rolled through the lake and left a muddy, brown trail in the blue water. At the same time, monster waves rippled across the entire lake and even sloshed against the white sands of Omi-Maiko. The green pine trees on the white beach almost drowned.

Azai-dake’s head finally stopped in the middle of northern Lake Biwa. The top part of the head stuck out from the water and became a small island.

Since Azai-dake’s head made bubbly sounds like Tsubu-tsubu-zubu when it went through the water, the island was named “Tsububushima” (都布夫島).

After the water became calm and clear again, King Biwako O-namazu, who was a Lake Biwa Giant Catfish, inspected Tsububushima underwater. “This is a great place for fish to live! This steep and rocky underwater habitat is perfect.” Many happy fish like funa carp, catfish, and eels then started living around Tsububushima. Bamboo also started growing on the island, making it green. The island was then renamed “Chikubushima” (竹生島), meaning “Bamboo Birth Island.” Although Azai-dake died, she brought forth new life and new habitats.

Ancient people living around Lake Biwa thousands of years ago made dugout canoes and rowed from Nagahama to Chikubushima. Even then, they must have felt something sacred and divine about the island. From the 5th century, they started to build shrines and temples on the island to worship the goddess Azai-hime and other gods. After all, the island was once Azai-dake. And Mount Ibuki lived happily ever after, knowing that he was Omi’s highest mountain without question. THE END

Chikubushima (Click on image to see more photos.)

Chikubushima and Mt. Ibuki

Chikubushima and Mt. Ibuki as seen from Imazu, Takashima.

Mt. Kanakuso and Mt. Ibuki

Mt. Kanakuso-dake and Mt. Ibuki as seen from the Hokuriku Line in winter.

Mt. Ibuki (伊吹山) is Shiga’s highest mountain in Maibara at 1,377 meters. Azai-dake is Mt. Kanakuso-dake (金糞岳) in Nagahama, northwest of Mt. Ibuki. It is Shiga’s second highest mountain at 1,317 meters and part of the Ibuki mountain range.

Chikubushima has a circumference of 2 km. If we add Chikubushima’s 197-meter height to Kanakuso-dake’s height, Kanakuso-dake would indeed be higher than Mt. Ibuki.

Chikubushima is home to Hogonji Temple first built in 724 as ordered by the emperor to worship Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows: Water, rivers, music, etc. Belonging to the Shingon Buddhist Sect (Buzan School), Hogonji is one of Japan’s three major spots worshipping Benzaiten (other two being Itsukushima Shrine and Enoshima Shrine). Tsukubushima Shrine also worships Benzaiten as well as the Dragon God and Azai-hime.

Many famous samurai, such as Oda Nobunaga and the Azai Clan, worshipped at Chikubushima since they believed Benzaiten had the power to destroy their enemies.

Chikubushima is easily accessible by boat operating daily from Nagahama Port, Hikone Port, and Imazu Port. Boat schedule for Nagahama and Imazu Ports here and for Hikone Port here (in Japanese).

* This English story is my adaptation of the original Japanese folktale, not an exact translation. This means certain parts of this story are figments of my own imagination. The original folktale appears in the Omi-no-Kuni Fudoki (近江国風土記) ancient chronicles of Omi Province (Shiga Prefecture).
* The drawing above was created by a close, young relative of mine.
* I welcome submissions of artwork depicting scenes from this folktale. The best ones will be posted on this page and credited to the artist.
* Major reference: 「近江の昔ものがたり」瀬川欣一、サンライズ出版1999年

*よい子のみなさん、刃物で人の首を切るまねをしないでね。叔父と姪も仲良くしましょう。
*この「竹生島ができたお話」の英語版は正確な英訳ではなく、フィルバートの改作であります。
*この「竹生島ができたお話」の絵を募集します。どのシーンでもOKです。メールで応募お願いします。面白い作品はクレジット付きでこのページに載せます。

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